Boys and tables: Asking may not be enough

In my last post, I talked about the parable of the blind men and the elephant, concluding that if we want to know how others see the world, “we need to ask.”

But often, simple asking is not enough. John Dewey includes the following story (from Ogden and Richards, quoting J. H. Weeks) in his Essays in Experimental Logic. He obviously liked the story as I do, because he repeats it in his Logic: The theory of inquiry:

I remember on one occasion wanting the word for Table. There were five or six boys standing around, and tapping the table with my forefinger, I asked, ‘What is this?’ One boy said it was a dodela, another that it was an etanda, another stated that it was bokali, a fourth that it was elamba, and the fifth said it was meza.

[It turned out afterwards that] one boy thought we wanted the word for tapping; another understood that we were seeking the word for the material of which the table was made; another had the idea that we required the word for hardness; another thought we wished for a name for that which covered the table; and the last, not being able, perhaps, to think of anything else, gave us the word, meza, table—the very word we were seeking.


Ogden, C. K., & Richards, I. A. (1949). The meaning of meaning: A study of the influence of language upon thought and of the science of symbolism, 10th ed. With supplementary essays by Bronislaw Malinowski and F. G. Crookshank (orig. pub. 1923). Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Blind people and elephants: We need to ask

blind_elephant[These comments grew out of a discussion in our Community Engagement class.]

The parable of the blind men and the elephant (see also the Wikipedia entry) has been told and retold many times. In that story, blind men feel different parts of the elephant, each concluding that the elephant is only what they directly feel.

For example, as John Godfrey Saxe’s poem re-telling would have it, different men saw the elephant as a wall, a snake, a spear, a tree, a fan, or a rope. E.g.,

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The story reminds us that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one’s perspective. But our fascination with it reveals that we, too, see only part of reality, making judgments about blindness based on not seeing actual blind people encountering actual elephants.

In Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, Javier Téllez takes the story in a new direction, by asking blind people to interact with a real elephant. (interview with Téllez and curator Mark Beasley)

As quoted in Greg Cook’s review in The Boston Phoenix, participants said things such as:

“It felt like a tire, a car tire, except it was warm. It wasn’t a good feeling.” “When I first went to touch it, I bumped into it, and I thought it was the wall. It felt like thick lizard skin.” “I felt an ear that felt like a hat and a trunk that felt like a hand.” “You feel the ridges and the bumps. And you can feel the life pulsing through it. You can’t hide it.” “It felt like I was touching some curtains.” “I imagined it to be quite large, but I couldn’t really sense how wide or tall it was. . . . And then I couldn’t tell if the damn thing was breathing or not breathing.”

Despite all the many tellings and re-tellings of that story, the actual blind people saw the elephant in ways not included in the standard versions of the parable. They helped me to see both blindness and elephants in new ways.

It’s good to recognize that people see the world differently, but to know what those different ways really are, we need to ask.